Singer, songwriter and producer Teremoana Rapley talks to Shilo Kino about heritage, Upper Hutt Posse, and her new work - Daughter of a Housegirl - which she will perform at the Auckland Arts Festival.
It is 1988 and Upper Hutt Posse have exploded on the scene with the release of "E Tu", one of the first rap songs to be released in Aotearoa. It's a song elevating Māori culture and paying homage to chiefs such as Hōne Heke, Te Rauparaha and Te Kooti.
Teremoana Rapley was just 14 years old, a young wāhine at Heretaunga College, when she joined the infamous rap group. It made her the only local-born female rapper in Aotearoa at the time.
"Being a part of Upper Hutt Posse definitely shaped my political consciousness from a very young age," she said. "I don't remember an informal 'Yes, you're in the group'. I just kept going back and then we started doing gigs. And then we moved to Auckland, and travelled around the country and overseas. By the time I was 17, I got to travel to New York, and Detroit."
Thirty-four years later and now 49, Rapley has carried on her politically conscious kaupapa through, weaving her way in different spaces. She's a grandmother and māmā who has been a part of the shaping of local youth indigenous television, politically conscious music and community action for over 25 years.
She was recently appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music and television. But Rapley isn't done just yet - in fact her best work might be still to come. Rapley will perform her full-length debut album Daughter of a Housegirl at the Auckland Arts Festival this March.
An album 30 years in the making, Daughter of a Housegirl is described as a "Black Moana Sovereign Story in the form of an inter-dimensional, multi-disciplinary musical experience of life, love, and living". Rapley, who has whakapapa back to the Cook Islands and Jamaica, says the long-awaited album is inspired by her māmā and also influenced by life-changing news. She was 40 when she found out her biological father was Jamaican. "For a number of years people could come up to me and ask, 'What part of Africa are you from?' That was already an acknowledgement that I looked different."
For most of her life Rapley believed her mother's partner - who is Pākehā - was her biological father. "When I introduced my dad to people, they looked at me like I'm a crazy person, like 'That is not your dad'. I had no reason to think that he wasn't." When Rapley first found out her biological father was Jamaican, she says it was a "relief". "I felt black for most of my life with my dark skin, and my children have curly, frizzy hair and one of my sons has dark skin. So it doesn't just affect me, it affects my children too."
The anger came later when she realised her Pākehā father didn't know. "He was my dad who brought me up, so it just means I gained another parent. He will always be my father." Rapley met her biological father in 2014 before he died, after finding her sisters on Facebook.
She flew over to Seattle and spent a week with him. "I had on jandals, a dress, no jacket, freezing; it was snowing when I arrived," she said. "I opened the door and there was dinner on the table and a glass of wine. The first thing he said was, 'Come sit down and eat'. I gave him a hug and we sat down and ate. It was so comfortable - it felt like I had been there my entire life. It was incredible after 40 years to find someone who thinks and looks like me. That was pretty phenomenal."
Daughter of a Housegirl serves as a tribute to her mother who was seen as a house girl, a position created for the purpose to serve and maintain a household, the lowest position.
"When my mother passed away, all the stories started coming out from my aunties and uncles," she says.
"My mom was a functioning alcoholic and people wouldn't allow me to be connected to her. They would say things like, 'She's a drunk, that can't be a daughter'. But there's a reason why my mom drank. As a housegirl, she used to look after the house, after the children. She did all the chores, all the cooking. She didn't just drink for fun. She was functioning because she was a mum. It doesn't mean she was the best mum, but she still did everything that she needed to do. Even years later, I tried to force her to go back to the Cook Islands with us when I was able to take all of us back, but she didn't want to go back. So I can only assume that part of the reason why my mother was a functioning alcoholic was to do with her upbringing in the Cook Islands."
Rapley wears many hats - a common theme among indigenous wāhine who often juggle so much. Rapley started out in music and then worked on an indigenous youth magazine show Mai Time - first as a presenter, then behind the scenes - and has since worked in community groups, local government and central government. She now works for a cultural and economic development agency.
From one indigenous wāhine to another, I ask how she has managed to stay authentic while making an impact in all these different spaces as a black sovereignty storyteller. "Nowadays, because there's so much content overload, people are always fighting for this authentic space of how we can have these real stories and control the narrative," she said. "But you don't need to come to the table with anything else. You don't need to come up with some fancy framework or templates, you come with yourself."
She says the term "diversity" is simply being allowed to bring your whole self to the table. "People talk about diversity inclusion and that makes me quite angry. Because what does it actually mean? Does that mean that if we get five Māori writers on board we can say we're more diverse and inclusive? What does that actually mean?
"As a woman who looks like this, it's been a struggle to watch other people go ahead of you when you're more competent or intelligent than them or they've ripped off your work to get the go-ahead. These are the things that I've witnessed.
"This is the reason why my approach to being a black sovereign storyteller sits in that space, as opposed to being a singer-songwriter, because I've always had to compete in that space. I don't sit down and think, 'I'm gonna write a politically conscious song.' I just start writing. It's a completely unconscious or subconscious space that that will happen."
Her favourite lyrics from a song on Daughter of a Housegirl capture the essence of who Rapley is. The waiata is about stepping into her "queendom" and coming into her "own light". "I'm unafraid yes, to step into my queendom, Been building since the sun and moon began its song and dance, swaying from right to left then back again."
"I stepped away from my light for two decades - not just from the stage - but now putting myself in the front. Now my queendom unfolds as I learn and love and lose. It's a natural space and if you're ready for it you will find it. Everyone needs to have their own queendom or kingdom."
Teremoana Rapley will perform Daughter of a Housegirl at the Auckland Arts Festival on Saturday, March 26, at 6.30pm at The Civic Theatre.